Daily Archives: May 16, 2012

Frye, Metaphor, and André Breton

If there is a centre or core to Frye’s theory of literature, it is metaphor. One could argue that myth is just as central. No doubt. But myth itself is the unfolding of a  metaphoric structure of imagery.  A myth is the story of a god, and a god is a metaphoric union of a human form, a divine personality, with Nature.

In my teaching I often turn to two passages from Anatomy on the “radical form of metaphor.” The first is from the second essay on levels of meaning, which concludes with a discussion of  different modes of metaphor:

In the anagogic aspect of meaning, the radical form of metaphor,  “A is B,” comes into its own. Here we are dealing with poetry in its totality, in which the formula “A is B” may be hypothetically applied to anything, for there is no metaphor, not even “black is  white,” which a reader has any right to quarrel with in advance. The literary universe, therefore, is a universe in which everything  is potentially identical with everything else. This does not mean that any two things in it are separate and very similar, like peas in a pod, or in the slangy and erroneous sense of the word in which we speak of identical twins. If twins were really identical they would be the same person. On the other hand, a grown man feels identical with himself at the age of seven, although the two manifestations of this identity, the man and the boy, have very little in common as regards similarity or likeness. In form, matter, personality, time, and space, man and boy are quite unlike. This is the only type of image I can think of that illustrates the process of identifying two independent forms. All poetry, then, proceeds as though all poetic images were contained within a single universal body. Identity is the opposite of similarity or likeness, and total identity is not uniformity, still less monotony, but a unity of various things.  (124-25)

The second definition is from Frye’s discussion of the rhythm of association that characterizes lyric:

The fusion of the concrete and abstract is a special case, though a very important one, of a general principle that the technical development of the last century has exposed to critical view. All poetic imagery seems to be founded on metaphor, but in the lyric, where the associative process is strongest and the ready-made descriptive phrases of ordinary prose furthest away, the unexpected or violent metaphor that is called catachresis has a peculiar importance. Much more frequently than any other genre does the lyric depend for its main effect on the fresh or surprising image, a fact which often gives rise to the illusion that such imagery is radically new or unconventional. From Nashe’s “Brightness falls from the air” to Dylan Thomas’s “A grief ago/’ the emotional crux of the lyric has over and over again tended to be this “sudden glory” of fused metaphor. (281)

One thinks of Pierre Reverdy’s definition of the poetic image, cited by André Breton in the first surrealist manifesto:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality… [Pierre Reverdy, Nord-Sud, March 1918]

A related idea, another touchstone for Breton, is Lautréamont’s famous image “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”

Breton’s great love poem “Union Libre” (1931) is one of the most striking examples of such catachrestic fusion. “Union Libre” is the French term for common-law marriage, a sexual union outside the law. What better title could there be for a poem whose radical uniting of disparate realities obeys no normative censor of any kind, and whose subject is both a delirious sexual union and the delirium of verbal fusion in which, as Breton puts it elsewhere, “the words make love.”

The poem is loosely based on the Renaissance blazon, in which the poet praises  the beauty of his mistress by enumerating the various attractions of her body.  The breathtaking sequence of bewildering but exhilarating images, in an exuberant parody of the Song of Songs, is  erotically charged while evoking at the same time a union of the bride (“ma femme,” my wife or woman) with Nature and a world of the most diverse particulars.  The epithetic structure of each image allows for a violent yoking of remotely related but surprisingly fitting realities.

Such a “free union” of images brings to mind Bakhtin’s observations about the use of the blason in Rabelais and His World (425-430), and in the section on “The Rabelaisian Chronotope” in the essay “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” (The Dialogic Imagination, 167-206), Bakhtin analyzes  the ways in which a grotesque fusion of images decreates and recreates the verbally organized conception of the world. Bakhtin’s understanding of poetic and literary imagery, particularly in its relation to the matrix of objects and phenomena (food, drink, copulation, birth and death) is is, in fact, very close to Frye’s, where such images are an outgrowth of the primary concerns of food, sex, freedom, and property.

Here is Breton’s extraordinary poem. I have consulted a number of versions in English, but the translation is my own:

Free Union

My wife of the wood fire hair
Of heat lightning thoughts
Of the hourglass waist
My wife of the waist of an otter in a tiger’s jaws
My wife of the mouth of cockade and a bouquet of stars of the latest magnitude
Of teeth like the tracks of white mice over the white earth
Of the tongue of rubbed amber and glass
My wife of the tongue of a stabbed wafer
Of the tongue of a doll which opens and closes its eyes
Of the tongue of fabulous stone
My wife of eyelashes in the vertical lines of a child’s handwriting
Of eyebrows like the edge of a bird’s nest
My wife of temples like the slate of a glasshouse roof
And the steam of breath on the windowpanes
My wife of the champagne shoulders
Of the shoulders of a fountain with dolphin heads under ice
My wife of the wrists of matches
My wife of fingers of luck and the ace of hearts
Of fingers of new-moan hay
My wife of armpits of marten and beechnuts
Of Midsummer Night
Of armpits of camphor and a nest of angel fish
Of arms of sea foam and a sluice-gate
And a blend of wheat and mill
My wife of the rocket legs
Of legs of clockwork and movements of despair
My wife of calves of elder marrow
My wife of the feet of initials
Of the feet of a bunch of keys
Of the feet of tippling caulkers
My wife of the neck of pearl barley
My wife of the throat of Val d’Or
Of the throat of a rendezvous in the very bed of the torrent
Of breasts of night
My wife of breasts of marine molehill
My wife of the breasts of crucible of ruby
Of breasts of the spectral rose beneath the dew
My wife of the unfolding belly of the fan of days
Of the belly of a giant claw
My wife of a bird’s back in vertical flight
Of the quicksilver back
Of the back of light
Of the nape of rolled stone and moistened chalk
Of the fall of a glass which has just been emptied
My wife of the hips of a skiff
Of hips of chandelier and arrow feathers
And stems of white peacock quills
Of imperceptible balance
My wife of the rump of stoneware and asbestos
My wife of the rump of a swan’s back
My wife of the rump of springtime
Of the sex of a gladiola
My wife of the sex of a gold-mine and platypus
My wife of the sex of seaweed and yesteryear’s  candies
My wife of the sex of a mirror
My wife of eyes full of tears
Of eyes of violet panoply and magnetized needle
My wife of the savanna eyes
My wife of eyes of water that quenches thirst in prison
My wife of the eyes of wood eternally under the axe
Of water level eyes
Of eyes at the level of air and earth
Of eyes at the level of fire